Fighting a double battle

How HIV peer education could continue amid a pandemic

Lulu Kansary
Two women having a discussion at a medical facility in Tanzania.
UNICEF Tanzania/Kansari
22 July 2021

DAR ES SALAAM, TANZANIA, 30 APRIL 2021- Her world was falling apart in the midst of a pandemic and with nowhere to turn. Rehema (22) a single mother of one, was doing quite well despite being diagnosed with HIV in 2015. She had a little shop selling second-hand clothes in Tanzania’s capital Dar es Salaam. She was an active member of NYP+, a network of young people living with HIV, and a peer educator at Ubungo municipal working closely with the HIV Care and Treatment clinic at Magomeni Health facility. As a peer educator, Rehema is sensitizing and encouraging young people to access HIV services and support treatment adherence by providing client-centered, skill building sessions at group level. The COVID-19 pulled the rug out from under her feet.

More people were seen wearing masks, handwashing stations were popping up in town, less gatherings were held and the long waiting lines at health facilities were gone as people were scared to contract the virus there. In the shadow of the visible changes were women living with HIV suffering in silence, they were invisible.

Rehema any many others stopped coming to the clinic and their adherence to the HIV treatment declined. They didn’t come to the empowerment group meetings either and many got caught in a depression. Rehema stopped her peer education activities as it was paused for a while and lost her monthly stipend. Her life straw, the shop, was also in poor shape as people had fled the city. There was a false rumor that COVID-19 was only found in in urban areas and many ran to their villages of origin for safety- leaving no clients for shop keepers like Rehema.

People are seated on benches during an awareness raising session
UNICEF Tanzania/Kansari
Rehema (to the left) is doing a COVID-19 and HIV awareness raising session to her peers at Magomeni Care and Treatment Clinic in Dar Es Salaam

The stress was eating its way into Rehema. She had no financial means to support herself, unable to access healthy food and failed to adhere to HIV treatment due to increased stress.

In response to the devastating effects the pandemic had on people living with HIV, the National Council of People Living with HIV (NACOPHA),  UNICEF and partners  provided personal protection equipment, education on COVID-19 prevention measures and psychosocial support to children, adolescents and women living with HIV. The support aimed to enhance adherence to HIV care and treatment in 5 regions of the Tanzania mainland.

Rehema was engaged in the program. Equipped with COVID-19 prevention knowledge, a reusable face masks, soap, and a water bucket, she resumed her work as a peer educator.

“I have benefited from the education and supplies as I am now doing well and I’m able to continue with my daily life while protecting myself from COVID-19. I live without fear of negative news from the social media, not scared of falling sick from both COVID-19 and HIV-related illnesses. I am now in good health,” says Rehema

In addition to her peer education role related to HIV, she is providing COVID-19 prevention education at her Care and Treatment Clinic (CTC), and to her family and friends in her society.

“I am grateful for the support provided to me and other people living with HIV. It renewed my confidence, treatment adherence and the important role I play to my fellow youths,” she finishes.

With UNICEF support, NACOPHA and NYP+ reached 3,000 children, adolescents and women living with HIV in five regions with COVID-19 education and provided them with hygiene kits. 1,000 members of NYP+ received psychosocial support and awareness training on COVID-19. Furthermore, a total of 200,000 adolescents and women living with HIV were reached with COVID-19 prevention messages through radio, TV, and social media.